Originally published on Center for Humans and Nature
“Morality may consist solely in the courage of making a choice.” Leon Blum
This issue of choice is an interesting one in its elusiveness. What actually do we choose, and when do we choose it? Or more to the point, do we actually choose anything? Any discussion of morality compels an examination of these critical questions.
We find ourselves alive on the planet, having been born to a specific family, in a certain location, with genes, physical features, qualities and talents already in place. Ego dictates that every action is a choice for the better, not the worse. We seek pleasure and avoid pain. We live within the structure of nature, subject to its laws. We conduct relationships in societies within written laws and hold expectations for behavior, dress, comportment and so on.
Is there any arena in our lives where we do enjoy free choice?
The Will: Free or Not?
An Italian psychiatrist named Roberto Assagioli, 1888–1974, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, developed a methodology for inner change called Psychosynthesis. He put forth a holistic model of human development that explicated his belief that human nature is a vast array of biological, social and spiritual impulses. He felt that a true psychology had to embrace all of the aspects of the person, a being able to reach its highest potential. One of his interesting examinations was that of the human will.
In his introduction to his essay “The Training of the Will,” Assagioli states: “The wide gulf between the external and inner powers of modern man is the most important and profound cause of the individual and collective evils which hinder the progress and even menace the future of our civilization.” He then goes on to discuss what he discerned to be specific qualities of the will:
The Strong Will has energy, persistence and concentration — a force of thought demanding that something happen. This aspect of will, however, is not enough, because it simply creates a strong inner resistance. The Skillful Will brings the use of the mind into the equation. This requires a fundamental understanding of our own psychology and Assagioli writes in detail about the roles of impulse, emotion and knowledge. The Good Will takes into consideration the relation of our will to that of others as well as to the universal Will. This aspect of will brings together the strong and the skillful into a synthesis called the Perfect Will.
So Assagioli concludes that there is will in each of us and that it can be used correctly if we learn how to do it. He pinpoints exactly where within our inner powers choice is possible. This synthesis of mind and will, also called intention, is the key.
But what about the outer powers referred to by Assagioli? These forces are found in the environments that influence us. The collective, global environment is thrust upon us, but we have some choice in how we respond to it, e.g., devour or avoid the news, join the social media fray or not participate, buy/update/compete or resist consumerism. But more importantly, we may choose by what and by whom we want to be influenced. We choose circles suited to our interests.
Family, occupational groups, spiritual communities, cat burglars, NFL fans, bridge players, musicians and artists, extortionists, book clubs, travelers, wine connoisseurs, college alumni, drug users, political affiliates, Corvette drivers, murderers, knitters, jet setters, animal rescuers, tree huggers, coffee drinkers… I’ll stop now. But you get the point, right? There is some wiggle room, some small but accessible arena in which we have free choice.
Our Role within Nature
“When the individual wills to co-operate harmoniously with the Will that governs the Universe, then that Will co-operates with him and puts at his disposal Its own infinite energies. In the Laws that rule the Cosmos man discovers the laws which should regulate his own actions.”
These are the words with which Assagioli closes his essay on the will. These laws — external and internal — that rule the Cosmos are the laws of nature to which we are subject. Gravity and the three laws of motion are examples of laws that subject us with no choice on our part. However, nature’s internal laws bind us just as immutably, but we may choose not to comply with them. And therein lies the arena of the meeting of mind and morality.
Assagioli created many maps that give us visual representations of his perception of our inner psychology. His Star Diagram places self/will in the center of man’s psyche, a position of influence and control over other aspects of psychological functioning. In this arena, we are never not choosing. A desire arises inside me and I want to satisfy it. In fact, my ego tells me I must do so.
Let’s say I’m hungry. I imagine a skillet of fried potatoes with onions, covered with sour cream. Sensations develop — my stomach growls, I literally salivate. I intuit that this is the perfect remedy for my hunger. Impulsively I head for the kitchen. My emotions are high — anticipation, glee. Enter thought. My rational mind niggling at me. Words like calories, grease, salt, Weight Watchers, my size 12 jeans hanging in the closet. And I confront the moment of choice.
This is an example, not necessarily a highly moral choice. But consider the process. We engage in it multiple times daily, this complex amalgamation of our innate qualities, followed by a decision. If one of the outer legs of the star, e.g., impulse wins out, we act out of our beastly cravings, more instinct that intelligent choice. Only when thought is brought in do we activate our unique human ability to scrutinize the possible impact of any decision/action.
And here is the crux of the issue. If we wish to love and honor Mother Nature, we need to know her internal laws so that we can choose to live in alignment with them. Or not. Within this vast system in which we exist, we find interdependence, altruism, balance, unity, interconnection, harmony — all qualities embedded in the overall law to love one another. The template for our relationships with each other was carefully constructed over billions of years so that it would be there when our species appeared. And these are the laws, as Assagioli said, which should regulate our actions.
Mind and Morality: Where Do They Meet? At that moment of choice.